Research & Innovation

Rediscovering the Language of Family Connections

Stevens electrical and computer engineering students develop an engaging app to help parents and children bond over their family’s language and culture

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, roughly 50% of U.S. children under the age of 18 are members of ethnic minority groups. Yet many immigrants struggle to assimilate into American culture while still preserving their heritage and native language and instilling their traditional culture in their children. 

“After three generations, most children completely lose their native tongue, and that can leave them turned away from their international family,” noted Christian Diesen ’23, an electrical engineering student at Stevens Institute of Technology.

Diesen teamed up with five other students in Stevens’ Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering to devote their senior design project to helping families strengthen such family bonds and traditions through a mobile app called Soma. The app aims to teach a second language using multifaceted, bilingual ebooks aimed at children from ages 3 to 10. 

The members of the Soma team — Diesen, Austin Hodges ’23, Tahrim Imon ’23, Jonathan Melamed ’23, Akash Rana ’23 and Liz Samayoa ’23 — were inspired to develop the app both by one teammate’s experience and by their mentor’s vision.

“Our society is a beautiful mosaic of many cultures, but I learned firsthand that children who do not know their native tongue are cut off from generations of stories, knowledge and memories,” said Samayoa, who is majoring in electrical engineering. “I'm a first-generation American. My family is from Belize, Guatemala and El Salvador. But I did not learn Spanish until both my grandfathers, who only spoke Spanish, had already passed.”

So when their mentor, Vahl Tech medical director and consultant Ommer Khaw, encouraged the team to develop a user-friendly way for Khaw and her child to learn Mandarin (the language of Khaw’s own heritage), the students seized the opportunity.

“More than half of our team is bilingual from childhood, and for many of us, it's been a battle to remain so,” said computer engineering major Imon, whose family came to America from Bangladesh when he was a child. “My mother and I read together to help develop our English skills, but that was at the expense of my learning and connecting with my mother language, Bengali.”

Diesen, too, experienced a similar loss. Until he was 9 years old, he lived in his mother’s native country of the Dominican Republic, where he spoke Spanish. Since moving to the U.S., however, he has lost his Spanish fluency.

“Without our shared love of culture with our ancestors, who are we?” asked Imon. “Language is that heritage. That is what fuels our passion for this project.”

It's never too late to learn a second language

The Soma app, named after the Swahili word for “read,” features karaoke-style reading and flashcard-style pictures to keep both parents and children entertained — and educated. Although still in the development stage, the app’s benefits are already clear.

Soma displays the words in a chosen language, sounding them out for users to repeat,” Imon explained. “It provides visual and auditory feedback with a fun yet practical approach, allowing nearly limitless opportunities to learn a new language, foster parent-child connections and preserve oral and cultural traditions.”

Soma wouldn’t be the first app to attempt to bridge this gap, but unlike more established competitors such as Duolingo and Unuhi, Soma addresses multiple learning styles. Soma’s interactive format also uses conversational phrases children can easily absorb and integrate into their daily exchanges.

“Since 50% of people are multimodal learners, Soma lets users not only hear and see the words, but also touch them syllable by syllable to get the pronunciation,” said Rana, who is studying computer engineering. Rana has maintained only a rudimentary knowledge of his family’s native Indian language of Gujarati.

Children who do not know their native tongue are cut off from generations of stories, knowledge and memories.
Liz Samayoa ’23

“We are part of a generation that's in danger of losing the wisdom of our ancestors,” he added, “but through Soma, we are ensuring the longevity of our teaching through reinforcement and by fostering connections between parent and child through the reading journey.”

The team envisions a free membership tier that would offer a limited, ad-supported library, and a $3.99/month premium tier that would provide an ad-free experience, two free books from a larger library and the option to purchase more.

In its first iteration, Soma is focusing on Spanish — but that’s not the only language the team had to incorporate into developing the product.

“I have programming experience, but none of us had programmed an app before, so we had to research the right coding language and then learn it on the fly,” said Hodges, who is majoring in software engineering. Although he doesn’t speak a different language than his family, he did earn certification as a bilingual Spanish speaker.

“The app development process is challenging,” Hodges noted, “because you have to focus not only on the back end, but also on getting the front end to look good and be kid-friendly, all while learning a new coding language.”

Reconnecting the past and the future

Soma team members stand next to a long table, which contains a computer screen showing their project poster presentation and a physical mock-up representing their Soma app. Other attendees of the 2023 Innovation Expo appear in the background.The Soma team presented their project poster and app mock-up at the 2023 Innovation ExpoPhoto: Kevin LuAt the Stevens Innovation Expo in May, the team previewed the Soma demo app for judges, professors, students and parents.

“It was great to see how many people related to our stories,” said Melamed, a computer engineering major. Melamed’s extended family speaks Hebrew, but he does not.

“We got a lot of positive feedback, especially from parents,” Hodges agreed. “Seeing Soma’s potential to help people stay connected with their cultures was truly rewarding.”

The Soma team members were also rewarded by being named one of only 10 finalists in the annual Ansary Entrepreneurship Competition.

“The members of the Soma team delivered an impactful senior design project in a global and societal context,” said the team’s advisor, Kevin Lu, teaching professor and associate chair for undergraduate studies in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. “They demonstrated coordination of their teamwork through regular discussions and made steady progress as an everyday habit, making them a role model for all senior design projects.”

After graduation, Samayoa will be working as an electrical engineer at Pure Power Engineering, and Hodges will begin the engineering management master’s program at Stevens in the fall. Diesen, Imon, Melamed and Rana are seeking full-time employment.

In the end, as proud as they are of their app, the students agreed they are even more grateful to have been able to use the knowledge they’ve gained at Stevens for a higher purpose.

“Soma was never just a senior design project,” Samayoa said. “It was a source of healing from our disconnect from our pasts and reassurance that it's never too late to remember and reconnect with our stories, our cultures and our history. Soma is a tangible step toward a future where assimilation does not mean forgetting your past.”

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